Pity the Region

Pity the Region

Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization criticizes a self-righteous US foreign policy oblivious to the power of retributive justice in the Middle East.


In March 1991 Shiites in southern Iraq were being slaughtered en masse. President George H.W. Bush had called upon the Iraqis to topple Saddam Hussein after the US-led coalition defeated the Iraqi army in Kuwait. The Shiites heeded the call with vigor and savagery, as did their Kurdish countrymen in the north, but now the reconsolidated Baathist regime was striking back, killing tens of thousands. Using helicopter gunships that Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf rashly permitted them to operate under the terms of the previous month’s cease-fire agreement, as well as ground forces, Saddam’s forces pulverized the rebellion. Many of the mass graves that have been recently unearthed are from this period.

While this was going on the Americans stood by and watched, often literally. One of the more disgraceful moral lapses in US history, this moment of “betrayal” fundamentally recast Shiite identity in Iraq. Advocates of the latest invasion–who were caught off-guard by the lukewarm reception Iraqi Shiites accorded their would-be liberators in 2003–seem to have slept through that part of the movie. US officials up and down the line did little to mitigate, much less end, the suffering of the Shiites, perhaps in deference to the wishes of their ally Saudi Arabia, for whom the prospect of a Shiite-dominated Iraq is no more inviting now than it was then. Only Iran offered substantial help, which would later yield dividends in credibility for Tehran and for groups it supported, as the elections in Iraq have revealed.

There was at least one American hero in 1991, Staff Sergeant Nolde of the First Armored Division. Robert Fisk, who never learned Nolde’s first name, met him at a crossroad in Safwan, the southern Iraqi border town where Nolde’s platoon sat while refugees desperately tried to flee to Kuwait. Ordered by a US official to turn them back to the killing fields in southern Iraq, where they were almost certain to die, Nolde responded:

“I’m sorry, sir. But if you’re going to give me an order to stop these people, I can’t do that. They are coming here begging, old women crying, sick children, boys begging for food. We’re already giving them most of our rations. But I have to tell you, sir, that if you give me an order to stop them, I just won’t do that.” You could see the embassy man wince.

Alas, US foreign policy is not set by the likes of Nolde, which helps to explain why the United States is widely derided and unloved, not just in the Middle East. This makes it all the more important to come to grips with the double standards and hypocrisies that have come to connote American foreign policy to many people around the globe.

Fisk’s magnum opus is not just about America in the Middle East, but America has a starring role in The Great War for Civilisation and it is not a flattering one. She is America, righteous of voice but tone-deaf to history, jealous of power but so entwined with Israel that she sometimes reads the other character’s lines as her own. Notwithstanding Fisk’s penchant for denying the powerful the benefit of the doubt, there is more than enough truth in his depiction to show that George W. Bush’s promises to the oppressed (notably in his January 2005 inaugural speech) are more rodomontade than factual, especially when the President claimed, “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” It is impossible to read Fisk’s book–replete as it is with evidence of US complicity with dictators, selective tolerance for political violence and erratic respect for human rights–and hear Bush’s claims as other than crowd-pleasing boilerplate.

Fisk, the London Independent‘s senior Middle East correspondent, is one of the best-known–and most polarizing–war reporters, one of the few print journalists with adoring fans and equally passionate detractors. The Independent, after discovering that most of its web hits came from Fisk readers, began charging a fee for his columns, well before other papers in Europe and North America were charging for “premium content.” Now one may buy several news packages, including “Robert Fisk” for £50 a year (about $90). It is tempting to compare him to Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh for the exclamations of fierce loyalty or disdain that his pugnacious columns inspire. But Fisk is more serious than either man and, as The Great War for Civilisation exhaustively demonstrates, he has a command of his subject worthy of a historian.

Fisk draws the title of his book from an inscription on the flip side of the World War I victory medal awarded to his father, Bill Fisk, whose service in that war was the signal experience of an otherwise unexceptional life. As a boy, Robert got a glimpse of war’s ravages during family excursions to European battlefields, and his father earned a rare ration of filial admiration for demonstrating that moral bearings need not be forfeited in war. Lieut. William Fisk apparently refused to lead a firing squad charged with executing an Australian soldier for desertion and murder; the elder Fisk would have recognized a kindred spirit in Staff Sergeant Nolde, no doubt.

A few other heroes appear at the most unexpected moments–a Muslim cleric who rescued the author from a potentially fatal beating in Afghanistan comes to mind–but The Great War for Civilisation does not offer many feel-good endings. Fisk’s often powerful reportage is steeped in a rich appreciation of history, but the book is not chronologically tidy, nor does it advance a sustained argument to guide the reader through a vast body of work that represents thirty years of distinctively tenacious, often brave journalism. I must admit that while reading this massive, unruly book I imagined Fisk emptying all his drawers on the bed. The book would have benefited greatly from a strong-willed editor. It is not just that the prose is sometimes flabby but that anecdotes and jabs are recycled, sometimes within the same chapter. Perhaps the editors at Knopf believe that Fisk is so important to Middle East journalism–or so revered by his readers–that every nail clipping and bon mot needs to be preserved. If so, they missed a chance to offer an even more compelling, less daunting volume, especially for readers with a newly acquired curiosity about the Middle East. Even so, this is a significant work that is sure to endure well after the current flood of Middle East-related books has crested.

In the Middle East, Fisk observes, “the people live their past history, again and again, every day,” and for two centuries that history has largely been shaped by outside powers, especially imperial France and Britain, the expansionist Soviet Union and for more than half a century the United States. Certainly, were it not for the etching of borders associated with seminal documents–the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Lord Mountbatten’s plan for the partition of British India–the region as we know it would scarcely exist. Yet even to conjure the region absent these decisive great-power intrusions is such a complex exercise in recursion that it serves to demonstrate how deeply implicated others have been in engraving the history of the region. Long after the echoes of Napoleon’s cannons firing on the port of Alexandria in 1798 quieted, the profound changes that the invasion launched in Egypt and the wider Arab world reverberated. The deadly effects of “great wars” on the field of battle are clear enough, whether in the mud and slaughter of the Somme or on the hills of Maysaloun, where in 1920 the French vanquished the Arab struggle for an independent Syria. But it was what followed those episodes of mayhem that gave decisive shape to the modern Middle East: the drawing of boundaries, co-optation of local elites, economic subordination and the maneuvering of pieces on geopolitical chessboards. French generals, British diplomats and American missionaries were people with a plan. Their hubris, in Fisk’s view, was to impose Western civilization on the people of the Middle East, and their efforts were part of a continuing “great war for civilisation” that has as its goal the conquest of the region.

Fisk sees no good coming from these ceaseless interventions. Indeed, he argues that campaigns in the “war for civilisation” may begin with optimism but typically end in catastrophe–America’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003 being a case in point. The invasion was informed not only by a willful contempt for history and an extravagant display of ethnocentrism but also by a framework of best-case scenarios and fantasies untouched by empirical knowledge of Iraq, as the case of the Iraqi Shiites illustrates. If a new Iraq emerges from the current violent stalemate, it will look very little like the exemplary democratic state that Bush or his chorus of war-boosters envisaged. In fact, it is likely to be closer to the Iranian model of “Islamic democracy,” provided it does not descend further into civil war. Fisk’s cynicism about Anglo-American policy in Iraq is richly borne out by the legacy of deprivation, death and disorder that the invasion, and the preceding decade of sanctions and nibbling attacks by the United States and Britain, have yielded.

In the area around Basra in southern Iraq, to take one of many examples in Fisk’s book, there has been a phenomenal epidemic of leukemia, breast and stomach cancer presumably connected to the introduction of an estimated 340 tons of radioactive material into the environment during the 1991 Gulf War. The source of the radioactivity? The profligate use of depleted uranium ammunition by the US military. In areas where the ammunition was fired in great quantities, cancer rates in children are as high as 71.8 per 100,000 compared with a regional average of 3.9 per 100,000. An Iraqi doctor reviewing his patient files tells Fisk, “Of fifteen cancer patients from one area, I have only two left. I am receiving children with cancer of the bone–this is incredible…. My God, I have performed mastectomies on two girls with cancer of the breast–one of them was only fourteen years old.” Fisk calls this the product of “a policy of bomb now, die later.”

But is Iraq doomed to wallow in misery, or might something good come of this poorly conceived invasion? While there may be no escape from history, Fisk’s dour emphasis on history’s recurrent patterns risks producing a static picture of the region. In his eagerness to discover historical parallels, he sometimes fails to grasp the novel features of the present. As a result, he offers neither feasible prescriptions nor a persuasive analysis of possible outcomes. Even if one shares Fisk’s skepticism of US motives in Iraq–and his conviction, echoed by the vast majority of Iraqis, that America’s war is ultimately about oil–there is no question that politics in the region have been thrown off kilter by the occupation. The naïve conception of a democratic peace that has preoccupied George Bush–especially since Iraq’s WMD larder proved to be empty–is irrelevant, except perhaps as an index of presidential gullibility, but after years of political stagnation there has clearly been a step-level change in the region.

Whether the outcome of the US-led invasion of Iraq will be constructive political turmoil leading to serious reform in obdurate autocracies, such as Egypt, Syria and Tunisia, or more horrific bloodshed and instability as Iraq plunges further into civil war, is a pertinent–and still unanswered–question. Although I opposed the invasion, my sense is that the political terms of reference have changed dramatically, if only because the United States and other Western states have been forced to acknowledge that the Islamist parties are the major opposition force in the region. Fanciful presumptions about secular oppositionists have been shelved, at least for now. As the recent elections in both Iraq and Egypt reveal, the Islamist parties will be an indelible component in whatever new equilibrium emerges in the region’s political systems. Oddly, for all that Fisk has to say about the errors, deceptions and missteps of US policy, he sheds scant light on the possible future of regional politics, other than showing how America’s policies have been a boon to followers of Osama bin Laden. Given his long years in the Middle East, it is surprising that his book lacks a serious assessment of how the region might be affected by America’s Iraq adventure.

Then again, Fisk is not offering a volume of prognostication but a work of memory. And if there is one clear lesson of this book, it is that while wars, crusades and terror may erase people, memories and the quest for retributive justice are not so easily extinguished. In his reporting on the region’s wars, Fisk has waged a campaign against forgetting and deliberate amnesia.

Fisk arrived in Beirut in 1976, at the age of 29, to report on the year-old civil war. Thirty years later, he is still there. While some of his contemporaries, notably John Bulloch, Kamal Salibi, Jonathan Randal, Ehud Ya’ari and Ze’ev Schiff have produced important accounts of major phases of the Lebanon conflicts, no journalist, or scholar for that matter, can match the breadth, nuance or tenacity of Fisk’s meticulous history of Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war, Pity the Nation. Fisk was one of the first reporters to enter Sabra and Shatila, the Beirut camps where, in September 1982, as many as 1,000 Palestinian refugees and displaced Lebanese Muslims were massacred at the hands of Christian militiamen allied with Israel. The atrocities that occurred in the camps left a deep imprint on Fisk’s psyche, and he has often recalled those gruesome scenes, emphasizing the integral role that Israeli officials, including then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, played in permitting the killings as well as in the subsequent disappearance of as many as 1,800 Arab, mostly Palestinian, male prisoners, who were turned over to the Christian Phalange. Most have never been seen again. On September 11, 2001, Fisk was on a flight to the United States, and he was putting the final touches on a story revisiting the 1982 massacres.

His eventful career spans two Israeli invasions, the rise and fall of Syrian suzerainty in Lebanon, the eight-year war launched when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the defeat of the Soviet army in Afghanistan, the Algerian civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and, of course, September 11 and its aftermath. During the civil war in Algeria, which erupted in 1992 after the army canceled elections the Islamists were poised to win, Fisk was one of the few reporters writing for an English-language paper to report from the ravaged former French colony, where perhaps 200,000 died at the hands of government forces or Islamist insurgents. His seventy-page chapter encompassing Algeria’s victorious revolution to break free of Paris, the accelerating decay of the authoritarian single-party state that emerged in 1962 and the calamitous civil war that raged for most of the 1990s could easily be a fine stand-alone essay on a society nearly eviscerated by violence.

Fisk’s writing has always been notable for its graphic depictions of violence. He jerks our heads and forces us to gaze upon disemboweled corpses, decimated families and the anguish of war’s victims, as if he wanted to infuse our nostrils with the secondhand stench of death. He has no patience for the Gameboy euphemisms–target-rich environments, collateral damage, surgical strikes–so favored by cable news coverage of America’s wars.

Although it is not his intention, Fisk’s parade of dreadfully suffering victims can lead to a kind of numbing war porn. “Please stop,” I found myself muttering, “you’ve made your point.” He notes that “war is also a vicarious, painful, attractive, unique experience for a journalist. Somehow that narcotic has to be burned off. If it’s not, the journalist may well die.” Perhaps Fisk is himself addicted to war. I suspect that he needs to feed the habit.

He writes wearing a hairshirt of empathy for the victims of oppression, never more notoriously than when, in 2001, he was nearly murdered by angry Afghans in a war-ravaged village on the border with Pakistan. “If I were an Afghan refugee,” Fisk wrote from his hospital bed, “I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find.” His adversaries had a field day of schadenfreude. The Wall Street Journal editorialized that he had finally gotten “his due,” suggesting that his defense of the attackers was tantamount to absolving mass murderers, particularly the nineteen perpetrators of the September 11 terrorist attacks, of their crimes. Fisk has done nothing of the sort, in fact, and he makes no secret of his loathing of the terrorists responsible for the attacks. But he insists on providing a context for Al Qaeda’s atrocities, something that infuriates many people who prefer the convenient simplicity of a black-and-white world. He had the effrontery to suggest that US policy, including its skewed stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict, has something to do with the enmity and distrust that America faces not just in the Middle East but in much of the world:

No, Israel was not to blame for what happened on September 11th, 2001. The culprits were Arabs, not Israelis. But America’s failure to act with honour in the Middle East, its promiscuous sale of missiles to those [i.e., the IDF in particular] who use them against civilians, its blithe disregard for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children under sanctions of which Washington was the principal supporter–all these were intimately related to the society that produced the Arabs who plunged New York into an apocalypse of fire.

Fisk’s trenchant criticism of US Middle East policy has doubtless opened doors for him in the region (Osama bin Laden, for one, has praised his objectivity), but it also raises suspicion in the West, especially in the United States. Fisk does not help his case with his often strident prose and intemperate criticism, not to mention the egocentrism that runs through much of his reporting. There is a clear line between acceptable criticism and irresponsible insinuation, and Fisk sometimes crosses it. Consider, for example, his gloss on the bedlam and looting that marked the first days of the occupation of Baghdad, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quipped that “stuff happens,” evidently unaware of the occupier’s responsibilities under international law. That there was no serious effort to bring the looting to a halt for days–even as the oil ministry was protected by American troops–reflects a level of strategic stupidity that has haunted the United States in Iraq ever since. This is fair game for tough reporting by Fisk and others. Fisk goes on, however, to hint that the looters were organized by some dark force–not Saddam’s deposed regime but Iraqis presumably allied with the United States. He asks the conspiracy theorist’s “who benefits” question: In whose interest is it for Iraq to be deconstructed, divided, burned, de-historied, destroyed? Like many people in the region that has been his home for the past three decades, Fisk seems to think the United States is capable of anything–anything, that is, except incompetence.

Yet for Americans fed a bland diet of government-manipulated news about the Middle East, The Great War for Civilisation should be a bracing, troubling book. American journalism does not come off well, although Fisk doffs his cap to several veteran reporters, including John Kifner of the New York Times and the late Peter Jennings. During the 1991 Gulf War, he writes, journalists became “mere cyphers, mouthpieces of generals, discreetly avoiding any moral questions, switching off their cameras–as we would later witness–when the horrors of war became too obvious. Journalists connived in the war, supported it, became part of it. Immaturity, inexperience, upbringing: you can choose any excuse you want. But they created war without death. They lied.” (Fisk has never been accused of mincing words.) The ease with which the mainstream media became accomplices to the White House in the rush to war in Iraq less than three years ago suggests that Fisk’s charges apply with equal force today.

The New York Times comes in for particularly tough criticism in Fisk’s book. He accuses the Times of being gutless for its elliptical coverage of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Fisk was one of the few Western journalists who reported from both the Iranian and Iraqi fronts during the war, and he wrote of Saddam’s use of gas several years before Iraq’s defiance of Washington made it politically acceptable to do so in the paper of record. His description of riding on a troop train returning casualties from the front is a rejoinder to the Gray Lady’s doubts (at the time) about the Iraqi use of gas:

Then I pull open the connecting door of the next carriage and they are sitting in there by the dozen, the young soldiers and Revolutionary Guards of the Islamic Republic, coughing softly into tissues and gauze cloths. Some are in open carriages, others crammed into compartments, all slowly dribbling blood and mucus from their mouths and noses.

Times columnist Thomas Friedman, described as “messianic” and featured for certitudes with short half-lives, might wonder what Fisk would write about him were he not a “friend” from their days in Lebanon during the civil war, when Friedman made a name for himself as a fine, honest war reporter. Policy experts are not spared either, including the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, who is assailed for his “most meretricious” book The Threatening Storm, which convinced many liberal intellectuals to endorse the Iraq War. As Fisk notes, the book was no less flawed and biased in its blinkered assumptions than the Bush Administration’s self-deceptive paradigm of Iraq.

But in decrying the timorousness of intellectuals, he makes his own no less bold claims to special knowledge, if not truth, grounded in appreciation of history’s lessons in the Middle East. One of those lessons is that foreign intervention typically leads to catastrophe, particularly for the region’s residents and often for the intervening state. There is precedent for the claim, including Lebanon in the early 1980s and Iran in the 1970s. Yet reading The Great War for Civilisation the credulous reader would imagine that the US invasion of Afghanistan was wholly unpopular with the Afghans. In fact, the toppling of the Taliban, while not universally applauded, was welcomed by many, many Afghans. He even wrote in 2003 that the American mission in the country was “collapsing,” which reveals that Fisk may sometimes be as blinkered as those he derides.

Fisk also has an unfortunate weakness for lazy harangues, as in his evocation of the buildup to the war against Saddam Hussein:

This war, about oil and regional control, was being cheer-led by a president who was treacherously telling us that this was part of an eternal war against “terror.” The British and most Europeans didn’t believe him. It’s not that Britons wouldn’t fight for America. They just didn’t want to fight for Bush or his friends. And if that included the prime minister, they didn’t want to fight for Blair either. Still less did they wish to embark on endless wars with a Texas governor-executioner who dodged the Vietnam draft and who, with his oil buddies, was now sending America’s poor to destroy a Muslim nation that had nothing at all to do with the crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001.

Fisk is at his best when he gets off his soapbox and concentrates on his strengths: telling the stories of history’s victims and exposing the lies of the powerful. Some of the most impressive writing in The Great War for Civilisation, which ranges across a century of regional conflict, explores events that took place decades before the author’s birth, notably the Armenian genocide of 1915, the subject of a chapter titled “The First Holocaust.” Fisk’s prodigious skills as a narrator are on vivid display in his moving account of Armenians marching off to death, based on interviews he conducted with survivors living their last days in a home for the blind in Beirut. “The First Holocaust” will make it more difficult for Turkey and its well-placed friends (among them Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, a favored guest at the Vice Presidential mansion) to sustain its campaign of denial.

The Great War for Civilisation is also peopled with extraordinary characters, whom Fisk wisely allows to speak for themselves in all their fascinating–and disconcerting–dissonance. When he meets Mikhail Kalashnikov at an international arms fair in Abu Dhabi, the inventor of the eponymous rifle assures him that good prevails in the end and that “the time will come when my weapons will be no more used or necessary.” (Needless to say, Fisk does not share his optimism.) And there are indelible scenes, notably an interview in Iran’s Qasr prison with Sadeq Khalkhali, the infamous cleric who summarily dispatched many functionaries of the Shah’s regime to the firing squad. While offering a religious defense of stoning, Khalkhali attacks a tub of ice cream, digging “his little spoon into the melting white ice-cream, oblivious to the bare-headed prisoners who trudged past behind him, heaving barrels loaded with cauldrons of vegetable soup.” Not far away women in chadors, clutching children, seek the release of their imprisoned husbands, but the smiling Khalkhali pays them no mind.

Fisk is sometimes rather too eager for the spotlight, making himself a character in the dramas he reports. Writing of the assassination of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, a leading Iraqi Shiite cleric, he says, “Only when I asked to visit Najaf in [July] 1980 did a Baath Party official tell the truth.” But my recollection (I was then in Lebanon) was that months before his “scoop” there was no lack of knowledge about the savage killing of the revered cleric in Abu Ghraib prison. Sadr died as nails were driven into his head, after he was forced to watch the abuse and then execution of his sister, Bint Huda. Still, Fisk has captured many a scoop during his long and distinguished career, from his reporting on Sabra and Shatila to his revelations that the Iranian passenger jet blasted out of the air in 1988 by the USS Vincennes was identified by other American naval vessels as a civilian plane on a routine, scheduled flight, contrary to official US claims at the time.

What is more, he has been especially fearless in uncovering official deception, as in his reporting on Israel’s siege of the West Bank in 2002, when Palestinian residences and government offices were ransacked, pillaged and smeared with feces. Israel tried futilely to dismiss reports as “baseless incitement whipped up by the Palestinian Authority,” but the stories by Fisk and others proved otherwise. He contrasts American journalists “who report in so craven a fashion from the Middle East–so fearful of Israeli criticism that they turn Israeli murder into ‘targeted attacks’ and illegal settlements into ‘Jewish neighborhoods'” with their Israeli colleagues, notably Ha’aretz‘s Ramallah correspondent Amira Hass, who abjures pablum and writes with deep moral insight about Israelis and Palestinians.

Although he is often vilified by Israel’s friends for his criticisms of the Jewish state, Fisk is no less scathing about the late Yasir Arafat and other Arab and Muslim politicians and despots, many of whom, he notes, have benefited from the self-interested patronage of the powerful, including the United States. After the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, the United States and Israel were content to allow Arafat to establish himself as a petty autocrat, one of a number of aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Fisk treats in a fifty-page chapter and at various other points in his book. A different choice might have been made by insisting on building democratic political structures in Palestine. Instead, there was a myopic focus on Israeli “security,” with Arafat cast as Israel’s gendarme in Palestine. In 1994 I asked Yossi Beilin at a private meeting in Boston whether a peace built between societies would be more durable than one made by forging a deal with Arafat and his cronies. Beilin was then Deputy Foreign Minister in the government of Yitzhak Rabin, and he was a key architect of the Oslo “peace process.” He replied impatiently: “The Palestinian state is going to be a dictatorship just like all the other Arab states.” As Fisk notes, neither the Israelis nor the Americans objected to Arafat’s allergy to democracy until the outbreak of the second intifada, when the call for Palestinian political reform became a virtual mantra in Washington and Tel Aviv:

Far from condemning the ever-increasing signs of despotism on the other side of their border, the Israelis lavished only praise on Arafat’s new security measures. U.S. State Department spokesmen, while making routine reference to their “concern” for human rights, welcomed and congratulated Arafat on the vitality of his secret midnight courts–a fact bitterly condemned by Amnesty International. Equally secret meetings of Arafat’s inner cabinet, which led to mass arrests of political opponents, were ignored by the U.S. administration.

After the assassination of Rabin in 1995, the Clinton Administration pursued an anemic policy vis-à-vis the new Likud government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Clinton privately characterized Netanyahu as unable to “recognize the humanity of the Palestinians,” but the Israeli prime minister was permitted to undermine the very peace process Clinton had welcomed with ceremony and fanfare on the White House lawn in 1993.

Only in his last six months in office did Clinton get out front on peacemaking, first through an enormous effort at the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 and then at Taba in the Sinai. Arafat was unfairly condemned by Clinton for sabotaging the effort because he would not accept then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s take-it-or-leave-it offer. Even so, in the final months of the Clinton Administration the Palestinians and Israelis came close to nailing down the details of an agreement, but the new Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was uninterested in a deal that would jeopardize his beloved West Bank settlements. The new American President, George W. Bush, espoused no interest in Middle East peacemaking and certainly did not want sloppy seconds to the despised Clinton. In any case, Bush’s fixation was Iraq.

By the time Arafat died, in 2004–unmourned by Washington, hounded and surrounded by Sharon–he had long since become the villain, the sole “obstacle to peace.” Then Israel departed forlorn Gaza, and in return “vast areas of the Palestinian West Bank would now become Israeli, courtesy of President Bush.” With characteristic sarcasm, Fisk wonders about Bush: “Does he actually work for al-Qaeda?”

Few reporters in the West have gotten as close to the leader of Al Qaeda as Fisk, who landed two meetings with Osama bin Laden: the first in Khartoum in 1993, the second in Afghanistan in 1996. His accounts of the meetings are valuable for revealing bin Laden’s concern for the fate of the Palestinians, which is often glossed as opportunistic by Western observers, as well as his contemplative demeanor and his confidence that “sooner or later the Americans will leave Saudi Arabia” and that “the war declared by America against the Saudi people means war against all Muslims everywhere.” “Resistance against America will spread in many, many places in Muslim countries,” he tells Fisk. Later, in February 2003, as the United States was poised to invade Iraq, bin Laden seized the opportunity to mobilize Muslims against the invaders and grasped the need to put aside his differences with secular Muslims opposed to America’s presence in Iraq: “Despite our belief and our proclamation concerning the infidelity of socialists [i.e., Baathists], in present-day circumstances there is a coincidence of interests between Muslims and socialists in their battles against the Crusaders.” This was bin Laden’s call to arms in Iraq.

Yet Fisk fails to put bin Laden in context. Considering the many years that he has lived in and reported from the Middle East–and the formidable heft of his book–it’s striking that he has not provided readers with a richer sense of the weave and texture of Muslim societies, where bin Laden’s pursuit of cataclysm is widely abhorred and rejected, even as it inspires worrying numbers of jihadists to join the battle. Indeed, by the end of The Great War for Civilisation the reader is left with an extraordinary Hieronymus Bosch regional mural in mind. It is fascinating to gaze upon, often grotesque, but also quite incomplete. Not only does Fisk risk reducing complex societies to war zones, in a kind of anti-imperialist version of Orientalism; he also risks suggesting that most of the tensions and conflicts in the region, including the struggle over the meaning of Islam and Islamist politics, are simply a reaction to Western interference. The rise of the Arab Shiites, for example, has arguably more to do with local politics (and intra-Muslim struggles) than international relations–although nothing is merely local anymore. Fisk has an “externalist” view of the region, despite having lived there for decades. And one hardly gets a flavor of the various cultures within it. This is a systematic shortcoming of the book, which presents the Middle East as a cockpit of bloodshed and sorrow, not as a place where people face mundane challenges that ultimately must be addressed peacefully.

The Great War for Civilisation is 1,000-plus pages of history with attitude. It is not an impartial reading of contemporary Middle East history, but it is generally clear-eyed and consistently unflinching. The book seals Robert Fisk’s place as a venerable, indispensable contributor to informed debate in and about the Middle East. If there are no realistic remedies on offer, there is generous informed criticism and a storehouse of rare detail and erudite reportage that serve as testimony to an exceptional career, one that is unmatched in its sustained intensity, moral introspection and courage. Lieut. William Fisk would be proud.

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